RICHMOND, Va. -- As more and more school systems return to in-person learning, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is set to launch a pilot program to test for COVID-19 among students and staff.
VDH's Deputy Director for the Office of Epidemiology Dr. Laurie Forlano said they have received preliminary interest from seven or eight school divisions and are in the process of finalizing details and they could begin in the coming weeks.
"Largely focused on what we call screening testing. So, testing asymptomatic people on a regular basis to try to catch those asymptomatic cases earlier than we would otherwise," said Forlano. "This is similar to what's happening in nursing homes and has been happening for months, obviously, in a different setting. But, it's another layer of protection, combined with other prevention strategies like masks, physical distancing, and all the other good work that schools have been doing to keep school settings safer."
Forlano said the tests would been done with the Abbott BinaxNOW kits that can return results in about 15 minutes. She added the program will receive funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"Right after we put our pilot program concept together, the CDC announced additional funding to states specific for K-12. testing," said Forlano. "Virginia is earmarked to get approximately $257 million to support testing programs in schools in the Commonwealth."
She added participation will be voluntary, but highly encouraged.
"[It] would help us learn a lot about what's happening in schools and where we might adjust prevention strategies if things aren't going as well as we would have," said Forlano. "We think it's important, because for a while, yet, I think we will still have an unvaccinated population in schools, the kids. So, even in the best of scenarios, it's going to take some time to get everyone optimally vaccinated in these in these school settings."
The pilot will run until June 30, and then they’ll look at ways of improving it to get it ready for a larger deployment when school comes back in the fall.
Forlano said their guidance is similar to the CDC's on how to deploy them, including frequent testing when community transmission is higher, and testing up to 20% of the student population.
She said, "You can do it as a random sample. You can choose certain cohorts or grade levels our classes. That might look different in different schools."
And said she hopes it will help overcome the most frequent concern they here from school districts. "Just the capacity to manage this at the school level, which makes a lot of sense, a lot of these schools are opening up more recently for the first time and many, many months," Forlano said.